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Ted Cruz's bizarre, flimsy description of the alleged Planned Parenthood shooter

Ted Cruz speaks at a conference in Florida.
Ted Cruz speaks at a conference in Florida.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Ted Cruz has a … unique view of the man who allegedly attacked a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic last week. On Sunday, the Republican presidential candidate said that instead of focusing on the suspected shooter's pro-life beliefs, the media should perhaps acknowledge that the suspect was "a transgendered leftist activist."

"The media promptly wants to blame him on the pro-life movement when at this point there's very little evidence to suggest that," Cruz said. "It's also reported that he was registered as independent and as a woman and a transgendered leftist activist — if that's what he is."

But being identified as a different gender on a voter registration database — in this case, something that was apparently caused by a clerical error — does not make someone transgender (or "transgendered," which is the wrong term), and there's no other indication that the alleged shooter is trans. Instead, being trans is part of a deeply held identity, one that goes back to a young age for many trans people. And it has nothing to do with a person's willingness to shoot others.

What does it actually mean to be transgender?

Some people don't identify their gender as the sex they were assigned at birth. Some people, for example, may have been born with a penis, and designated male at birth as a result, but later realize that they identify as women and typical social standards of masculinity or femininity don't apply to them. These people are adopting forms of gender identity and expression that aren't related to their body parts or what sex a doctor decided they are at birth.

And to understand what transgender means, you have to understand what gender identity and expression are, and how both concepts differ.

Gender identity is someone's personal identification as man, a woman, or a gender outside of societal norms. Gender expression refers to characteristics and behaviors a person identifies with that can be viewed as masculine, feminine, a mix of both, or neither.

The vast majority of Americans are cisgender, meaning they identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. Perhaps because of this — and because people who are not cisgender have been visible in the mainstream media only relatively recently — there's an exposure gap for many Americans: For them, it can be difficult to understand how, for instance, a person born with a vagina and raised as a woman might identify as a man.

Lily Carollo, a trans blogger in North Carolina, said she helps cisgender people expand their views on gender identity through a thought exercise that, if successful, conveys the feeling of being identified by others as the wrong gender. She begins by asking people if a huge sum of money would get them to physically transition to the opposite gender. Most people say no, she said, because they'd rather continue presenting themselves as the gender they were born as and identify with. "If you go into why they're answering no, they'll usually say that it wouldn't feel right," Carollo said. "That's what you lock into. Take that sense and imagine if you had been born in the opposite body."

A common misconception is that gender identity and expression are linked to sexual or romantic attraction. But a trans person can identify as a man, even though he was assigned female at birth, and be gay (attracted to other men), straight (attracted to women), bisexual, asexual (sexually attracted to no one), or attracted to a traditionally undefined gender; trans women can also be sexually attracted to men, women, both, no one, or another preference.

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, acknowledged that this concept can be difficult to explain. "If somebody was living as a man dating women, and now they're living as a woman dating women, what does that mean? They were straight; now they're gay," Keisling said. "But did their sexual orientation change, or were they always attracted to women?"

This infographic, put together by Trans Student Educational Resources, helps break through some of that confusion by showing how a person's gender identity and expression fall outside characteristics like sexual orientation and sex assigned at birth:

The gender unicorn explains the difference between gender identity, gender expression and presentation, sex assigned at birth, and sexual and romantic attractions. Trans Student Educational Resources

The idea behind these different forms of identity and expression is that traditional gender roles — how people are expected by society to act based on the gender assigned to them at birth — are a social construct, not a biological one. This is a concept that causes a great deal of debate in religious and conservative circles, but it's largely uncontroversial for many anthropologists who indicate that gender is flexible enough that different societies and people can construct and interpret it differently.

So transgender is a term used to describe someone's deeply held gender identity and how it differs from societal standards and expectations. It's not something, as Cruz's comments suggest, that someone declares as a whim right before voting.

If the suspected shooter is trans, then, it would very likely show up in far more aspects of his life, not just a one-off mention in a voter registration database that turned out to be no more than an error.